Watch the lights flash. Hear the bells clang. The StageWorks Fresno production of “The Who’s Tommy” racks up a high score.
Once again, StageWorks demonstrates in this 2016 season opener that a big theater and elaborate set isn’t needed to capture the visual and musical excitement of a charged, complex storyline. Instead, within the confines of the intimate Dan Pessano Theatre, and with inspired direction from Joel C. Abels and Josh Montgomery, the weird and sometimes jangled narrative of this classic rock musical from Pete Townshend comes alive in vivid emotional detail.
What I like best about this production isn’t just that the co-directors and accomplished cast “get through” a narrative that spans decades from World War II to the psychedelic ’60s and requires a bevy of settings, costumes and generational changes. It’s that the storytelling is never secondary to the logistics. There were many times in this production, which I saw in an opening-night performance that had a few technical difficulties, when I forgot all about the bells and whistles, so to speak, and got caught up in moments that jolted with angst, whimsy and reflection.
“Tommy” isn’t performed all that often, but for most people, the premise is well known: When a young boy witnesses his father shoot his mom’s boyfriend, he shuts down psychologically. This “deaf, dumb and blind kid” becomes a mystery to his loving but hapless parents, an object of interest for detached doctors, and a target of abuse for his creepy uncle and neighborhood kids.
This ‘Tommy’ is first and foremost anchored by a superb ensemble, a group of nearly 20 supporting players who are so cohesive and attuned to each other that it’s almost like watching one person traipse through the show playing different characters.
But then someone puts him in front of a pinball machine. Somehow – is it through his acute sense of touch, feeling the vibrations of the ball as it bounces around? – he becomes a pinball champion. From there it’s a strange and wild ride to stardom.
This “Tommy” is first and foremost anchored by a superb ensemble, a group of nearly 20 supporting players who are so cohesive and attuned to each other that it’s almost like watching one person traipse through the show playing different characters. From surly teens to medical professionals to rabid fans, the actors are vigorously in each moment. There isn’t a weak link among them. They perform Montgomery’s strong choreography with precision and heart. They sing with gusto. They sell the show.
There are strong leading performances as well. Amalie Larsen is stirring both dramatically and vocally as Tommy’s mother, particularly when her frustrations bubble to the surface in the second act in her rousing song “Break the Mirror.” Daniel Rodriguez, as Tommy’s father, gives a layered performance as we glimpse a man who is in over his head in terms of trying to help his son. His “I Believe My Own Eyes” is a highlight.
Camille Gaston shines as the “Gypsy,” belting out the well-known “Acid Queen” with panache. Jacob Wilson imbues Uncle Ernie with a thoroughly slimy, slicked-back essence of ickiness, and his vocals are first-rate.
Randy Kohlruss, as Cousin Kevin, exemplifies the crackling appeal of this show: He practically palpitates with a ferocious, sleazy intensity bordering on the neurotic, as if someone had given a triple-dose of speed to the Emcee in “Cabaret.” He’s a standout.
Three actors play Tommy at various ages. Laurel Marshall (at age 4) and Maisie Rae Van Vleet (at age 10) are outstanding little thespians in the making, coping with the challenges of playing blind with considerable aplomb.
Mitchell Lam Hau, as the bigger Tommy, gives an accomplished performance, particularly in the first act, but I somehow wanted more from him at the opening-night performance: more assured vocals (he could have used more amplification) and a more dynamic transformation. By the end of the show, in the memorable finale, it seemed as if Hau was finally connecting with the “rock” in this rock musical.
Music director Max Bennett-Parker ably conducts the eight-piece band. In what seems an age-old quandary in the small Pessano Theatre, the percussion still has a tendency to drown out individual vocals, and on opening night there were some problems with body mikes.
Abels’ minimalist scenic design, augmented by some sharp looking projections (by Abels and Elizabeth Waldman) is quite effective. The production team is first-rate, from Eric Gomez’s hair and wigs and Lisa Schumacher’s eye-popping costumes to Sarah Puckett’s makeup design. I was quite taken with Jennifer Malatesta’s lighting design, which throbbed and danced of its own accord but also knew when to ditch the splashiness and augment key emotional moments.
Finally: I have a memory of “Tommy” when it was directed by Abels at Children’s Musical Theaterworks in 2006. (How, oh how, did that company get away with such an adult show?) I remember a moment involving sliding screens as a brisk way of shifting actors on and off the stage, and I loved it. Abels and Montgomery do a similar thing this time around to my delight, unveiling different medical teams dressed in gorgeous hues: mustard yellow, burgundy, blue and purple.
Sometimes it’s the smallest of details that can make a theater outing extraordinary.
The Who’s Tommy
- Through July 17
- Dan Pessano Theatre, Clovis North Performing Arts Complex
- 2770 E. International Ave.
- www.stageworksfresno.com, 559-289-6622
- A special cabaret featuring StageWorks performers will be held 10 p.m. Friday, July 8, following the regular performance. Separate admission is $10.